Easing lockdown this week is an important step towards getting the economy moving again. But there are still significant challenges ahead for Britain’s economy as well as for our health. Official figures show that without decisive government action, Britain could face unemployment on a scale not seen for decades.
We all know that merely reversing the restrictions in place to control Covid-19 won’t restore our economy to its previous state. Some parts of our economy have taken a serious hit with little imminent prospect of a return to the old normal. Other businesses will be operating, for many weeks or months, in ways that both increase their costs and limit their profits. And even those companies which have weathered this part of the pandemic, will need to adjust to an economy where many people will be more reluctant to go out, others will have less money to spend, and everyone will be making different choices.
And that’s why what Britain needs, and what Labour is calling for, is a “Back to Work Budget” this summer, to protect livelihoods as we pull through the pandemic. That budget needs to have three clear priorities at its heart: jobs, jobs, and jobs again. Retaining jobs, sustaining jobs and creating jobs.
As furlough changes and employers no longer have access to government support, we don’t want to see people moving off furlough and out of work. That means the government should show flexibility in winding down the scheme, including careful and considered thought about how provisions for self-employed workers should be wound down. We also need to end the “one-size-fits-all” approach to different sectors and parts of the country. Some sectors are going to need more help than others, and the support that works to keep jobs in place for many businesses won’t be right for all.
We need to sustain jobs because until this pandemic is beaten once and for all, it will be a very different economic environment for many companies and many workers. The manufacturing industry, for example, is highly dependent on exports and is likely to be among the worst-affected sectors. Make UK: The Manufacturers’ Organisation’s recent survey shows demand has plummeted, and a quarter of companies plan to make redundancies in the next six months.
As the economy changes and we adapt to a new normal, we need to make sure that this isn’t paid for with the livelihoods of working people. The government needs to start setting out its plans on job creation schemes, and opportunities for retraining and upskilling. The obvious place to start is the imaginative and effective Future Jobs Fund, put in place by the last Labour government in the wake of the global financial crisis. Launched in 2009, it provided significant support to those who found themselves at the sharp end of the financial crisis, helping them find work – and stay in work – in the years that followed.
Of course, things are different today, but there are important similarities too. Global and national demand are likely to remain weak for some time. That means investing in infrastructure will be a crucial part of stimulating our economy and supporting local communities, as well as enabling future economic success. The government has talked about faster delivery of plans which are “shovel-ready”. But repeating existing commitments to projects that have been stuck in the pipeline for years won’t be enough.
While the Tories drag their feet, other countries are pulling ahead, announcing stimulus packages to support a post-pandemic economic recovery. The window is closing to protect existing jobs and encourage firms to invest in creating new ones. Workers and employers all need to hear clear plans from the government. The Tories were slow into lockdown, slow in providing support for jobs, slow in supporting the self-employed, slow in extending provisions as the pandemic continued. Britain simply cannot afford for them to be slow again in the face of a looming jobs crisis.
Bridget’s piece was originally published for Independent Voices.